Larry Bird’s Foolish Involvement in a Bar Fight Cost the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals

Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird competed at just about everything, including drinking. In one such instance, though, it got Larry Legend in a world of trouble.

The Celtics won both games at home to open the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, and Bird felt like blowing off some steam by having a drink at the now-defunct Chelsea’s bar in Quincy Market. However, the evening ended in a disaster, and the events that transpired had massive implications for an NBA Finals showdown with the hated Los Angeles Lakers.

Larry Bird injured his shooting hand in a bar fight during the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals

Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird writhes in pain during a game in April 1985
Larry Bird hits the floor in pain during an NBA game on April 20, 1985 | Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Earlier in the 1984-85 season, Larry Bird and the Celtics scrapped with Julius Erving and the rest of the 76ers at the Boston Garden. About six months later, Bird was still throwing punches in Beantown. Only this time, he brawled away from the court.

Some confusion arose when Bird struggled mightily in Game 4. He shot 4-of-15 with eight turnovers and scored just 14 points in a 76ers victory. Things became clearer after the game as Bird’s index finger had swollen considerably.

According to the New York Times, those close to Bird swore the finger in question had been disfigured since college. Meanwhile, the NBA MVP brushed the injury aside and trudged on. Boston closed the series in Game 5, but the Hick from French Lick struggled again. Larry Legend scored 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting from the field.

The truth did not come to light until November.

Reports finally trickled out that Bird was involved in a bar fight at Chelsea’s. He took responsibility for his actions, saying (h/t Los Angeles Times) he was to blame for the altercation and acknowledging he, too, made mistakes.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, this particular error loomed large when Boston fell short against Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Bird’s mangled finger disrupted a stellar run of scoring, and he didn’t look the same in the Finals

Bird had been on a remarkable scoring run heading into the playoffs, averaging over 30 points in the final three months of the regular season. Said stretch included his famous 60-point outing that had Atlanta Hawks players reacting on the bench.

The momentum carried into the postseason. Larry Legend averaged 34.7 points in a first-round series win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, then he had a pair of 40-point games against the Detroit Pistons in the conference semifinals.

Bird opened the Eastern Conference Finals with three straight games of at least 23 points. But the final two games of that series made it clear, in hindsight, that the injured index finger played a role in his struggles. His production in the Finals also illustrated as much.

The Hick from French Lick averaged 23.8 points on 45% shooting against the Lakers. Those aren’t terrible numbers, by any stretch. Still, he struggled at crucial junctures.

Bird went 8-of-21 from the floor and scored just 20 points in Game 3 as the Lakers took the series lead. After Boston tied the series in Game 4, Bird was again held to 20 points in Game 5. He tried to take on a bigger scoring load in Game 6, finishing with 28 points. However, he also shot just 12-of-29 from the field as LA hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Garden.

What if?

Coming off a loss to Boston in the 1984 Finals, revenge must have tasted sweet for the Lakers in 1985. But would LA still have won the title if Larry Bird and the Celtics were fully healthy?

Now, let’s clarify something: Larry Legend is not solely to blame for the Finals loss. Boston’s bench lacked the same depth as LA’s, especially with Cedric Maxwell still ailing from knee problems. The bench shortages made Dennis Johnson’s struggles look worse as he shot just over 38% from the field for the series.

That said, the Celtics managed to make it a somewhat competitive series despite the primarily six-man rotation and Bird struggling to find a rhythm. What if he had been at 100%? For reference, Bird averaged 27.4 points and shot over 48% in the 1984 Finals. If Boston got that kind of production in 1985, would the C’s have won? After all, Kevin McHale played like a superstar. The Celtics could have used that extra scoring punch.

Perhaps a healthy Bird still could not have overcome the Lakers in ’85. Still, it’s worth wondering what might have transpired if he never got in the bar fight.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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